I want to speak about my personal attraction to what I understand to be the Buddha’s way – as a way of life and a way of religious expression — the development of spirituality without institutional religion…without the need for dogma, creeds or theological belief systems.
I’m not talking about the wide variety of ways in which Buddhism is practiced – the ways it has become institutionalized. If he saw it, the Buddha would roll over under the bodhi tree; so much of it is diametrically opposed to what he taught…his way.
Just as Christianity devolved from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus, so did Buddhism devolve from the teachings of the Buddha to the worship of the Buddha – from the religion of the Buddha to a religion about the person who was called The Buddha.
The left-brain/right-brain approach encourages us to see ‘from both sides now.’ The stories about the miraculous birth of the Buddha, like the miraculous birth of Jesus and all the other gods, is pure right-brain stuff…the stuff of myths and legends, dreams and intuition…what we often refer to as spirituality.
The legend says that Siddhartha’s birth was not a natural birth. There are various birth narratives, the most common says that the Buddha was born out of the side of queen Mahamaya ‘with an array of light, born fully awake, with the ability to walk and talk.’
Not very much is known about the historical childhood of the Buddha, but there is a well-known legend about his development from birth to the Buddha, which we’ll review below.
Karen Armstrong wrote a biography of the Buddha. She says that although there is very little information that can be considered historically sound, we can be reasonably confident that Siddhārtha Gautama did exist as a historical figure.
She writes that Siddhartha was born about 500 or 400 BCE at or near what is now Nepal. She notes that there is no chronological record of his life, nor is there a record of his teachings, so his biography has to be pieced together from oral traditions about his miraculous birth, his renunciation of the wealthy domestic life style into which he was born, his path to enlightenment and his teaching, and his death at 81.
As a boy, growing up in a wealthy family, Siddhartha had been protected by a loving father who didn’t allow him to witness illness, death or the religious life because a prophet predicted that Siddhartha would turn away from the domestic life and become an important religious teacher of great renown.
Before he reached maturity, as a young man of 16, Siddhartha married and fathered a son, but soon realized that something was missing from his life – he had been over-protected, so he left home in search of experiences that would allow him to understand what some today might call ‘the real world.’ The legend says that his quest led to his enlightenment.
My understanding is that such a search, the questioning and the questing, serves as a metaphor for the life of every person, in one way or another. At certain points in life we question things we’ve been told and taught and strike out on our own, if not literally, then at least in our own mind’s quest for deeper truth, deeper understanding of what life is about.
The legend, referred to as the Four Passing Sights, goes like this:
When he was born his father summoned the fortune tellers to ask about Siddhartha’s destiny; they said that he was not the usual or common child, that he was destined for greatness, either as a politician who would unite all of India, or a great redeemer of the world, a religious savior.
Siddhartha’s father wanted him to become a great Chakravartin, a ‘wheel turner,’ or conquering king, so he did all he could to steer his son toward that end. Strict orders were given to all those in charge of his care to keep him from confrontation with the world of the spirit, and to keep him tied to worldly things, with worldly pleasures. (Television, ipods, computer games…all the latest gadgets and toys…the best schools and the right clothes, and so forth. As in any good myth we should see ourselves in the story.)
Even more specifically, the prince was to be kept from any contact with sickness and death, with old age, and with monks who had renounced worldly pleasures for the religious life, lest he get any ‘bright ideas.’
One day, the legend says, Siddhartha was out riding his great white horse when he saw an old man, bent with his years, broken-toothed and gray, leaning on his staff. Obviously this old man had been miraculously incarnated by the gods for Siddhartha’s education. He was shocked and asked his caretaker what this meant.
Thus he learned about the inevitability of aging and the loss of youthfulness and all that that implies.
On another ride outside the palace gates he encountered a man wracked with pain, filled with disease—thus he learned about human vulnerability to illness and disease.
On another journey he saw a corpse, shocked by his first encounter with death.
Finally, on the ‘Fourth Passing Sight’ Siddhartha encountered a monk with a shaved head, saffron robe and beggar’s rice bowl, and on that day he learned about the possibility of a way of life that was not materialistic or centered on gaining power over others—the religious life; this was his burning bush experience–what some refer to as a calling.
The legend says that in his twenty-ninth year he made his break with the world into which he had been born and set out on a spiritual journey—this is referred to as his Great Going Forth.
He shaved his head, donned a simple saffron robe and went forth to explore the world, both outer and inner.
Soon he was accosted by the evil god, Mara, (his shadow side) who taunted and tempted him and threatened to trap him and seduce him whenever he showed signs of weakness.
He met some Hindu priests who were trying to reach Nirvana through the practice of yoga, but Siddhartha rejected their way and decided on asceticism, extreme abstinence and self-denial; he became skeletal to the extent that he could feel his spine through his stomach, but he did not find enlightenment.
This led him to his first important discovery which he called The Middle Way – the way between the extremes of materialism and greed on the one hand and asceticism or extreme self-denial on the other.
He recalled an experience as a boy sitting under a tree and becoming engrossed with nature around him and in him; he was filled with a sense of compassion for all living things. So he sat under a Bodhi tree and went into a deep meditation that lasted for forty days and nights and he awoke and realized that he had achieved enlightenment.
The legend says that as soon as he achieved enlightenment he was immediately visited by Mara, the evil one, who once again threatened him. Siddhartha cried out to the earth to protect him and he was saved, which is why the Buddha is often portrayed in his sitting position pointing down to the earth, his salvation.
This is when, in my version of the legend, he would recite e e cumming’s famous poem:
i thank You God for most this amazingday:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
The ‘ears of his ears awoke,’ and thus he became the Buddha, the enlightened one, or the awakened one (from the root ‘budh,’ to be awake, to be aware.) He spent the rest of his life as a teacher, sharing his awareness, his insights.
His teaching is summarized in The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path:
First: Life is suffering (dukkha); that is to say, all life involves suffering…pain of various kinds. Second the reason for suffering is ‘desire’ (tanha) which translates to the ‘wish that things were not the way they are.’ Things are ‘out of joint.’ The third Noble Truth is that ‘there is a solution.’ The fourth Noble Truth is the cure, which is the Eightfold Path:
- Right views: an understanding of the Four Noble Truths; and, in a more general sense, a right way of seeing life…of accepting ‘what is.’
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right conduct: do not kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, drink intoxicants.
- Right livelihood – occupation
- Right effort – will power
- Right mindfulness – Dhammapada opens: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought…we become what we think
- Right concentration –
These eight are divided into three categories: the first two are about wisdom, (right views/intention) the next three are about ethical conduct (right speech, conduct, livelihood and effort) and the final three are about mental development (right mindfulness and right concentration.)
Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority—each person must be his or her own authority; he preached a religion devoid of ritual, of trying to petition the gods for special favors; he preached a religion ‘that skirted speculations;’ he preached a religion devoid of tradition; he preached a religion of intense self-effort—the life-long task, in my way of interpreting it—the life-long task of becoming the Buddha. Perhaps most significantly, he preached a religion devoid of the supernatural: “By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple—that he tries to work a miracle.”
The religion he preached was empirical—personal experience was the final test of truth—you must know for yourself. (Left brain) The religion he preached was scientific, dealing with the laws of cause and effect; the religion he preached was pragmatic—he kept his attention on the real, down-to-earth problems and predicaments we all encounter in life. He said that his teachings should be tools, they had no ultimate value beyond how they were used, like a raft that takes you across the river but are no further value as you continue the journey beyond the shore once you’ve landed.
The religion he preached was therapeutic: “One thing I teach: suffering and the end of suffering.”
Shortly before his death, the story says, he was again visited by Mara, the evil one, who tried to convince him to achieve his final bliss, or ‘nirvana’ right away. Once he entered nirvana he would never again be required to be reborn but would enter eternal bliss. (Like early retirement!)
But the Buddha had ‘promises to keep and miles to go’ before the big sleep – he wanted to make sure his teachings would continue in his absence, so he instituted the “Sangha”, or school – a formal order of monks who had renounced the cravings and strivings of the world and lived a life of compassion, service and communal love – walking the walk.
In other words, they moved out of their left-brain hemisphere into the right-brain hemisphere…the left side dominated by ‘cravings and striving,’ by fear and competition, by a judgmental and critical way of being in the world, to the right side, dominated by love and compassion.
To quote the Dhammapada, believed to be the sayings or teachings of the Buddha himself:
“Never does hatred cease by hating in return, only through love can hatred come to an end; victory breeds hatred – the conquered dwell in sorrow and resentment. They who give up all thought of victory or defeat may be calm and live happily at peace. Let us overcome violence by gentleness.”
What makes Buddhism attractive to Unitarians, as it was for Emerson and the Transcendentalists, is that it is a way of being religious, or spiritual (if you will) simply by the way you live your life, what our forebears called ‘salvation by character,’ without having to assent to believing in an anthropomorphic god – a god that resembles a human being, as the god of the Hebrew, Christian and Muslim Scriptures is described…a god with all the human attributes and most of our human flaws…an angry, vengeful god who loses control of his own creation and has to send a flood to destroy it all to start again; a god who sends his son to be sacrificed for the sins his children committed; an all-too human god!
What makes Buddhism attractive to or compatible with Unitarians is that you can have a rational religion, without an anthropomorphic supernatural god.
What makes Buddhism attractive to Universalists is a spirituality that emphasizes love or compassion as the most essential virtue; that there’s not one true religion with all the others being wrong, but there’s Truth with a capital T can be found in all the world’s religions, and outside of them all, too.
My understanding of the essence of Buddhism is that it balances right and left hemispheres of the brain. It’s about insight and intuition; it’s also about science — the rational part of us. It doesn’t come from reading the sacred books but from seeing the sacred in all life; it doesn’t come from believing certain things – from theology – but from living in certain ways.
That’s why I used the quotation, “When I’m a Buddhist my family hates me; when I’m the Buddha they love me.”
When I’m a Buddhist I’m suggesting that I have the final answer, like a fundamentalist Christian, Muslim or Orthodox Jew. It’s the idea that there is only one right way and if you do not follow that way then you will burn in Hell, or some variation on that old outmoded theme.
The way of the Buddha is an approach to religion and life, or an attitude about religion and life, while Buddhism as it has become institutionalized divides families, thus ‘when I’m a Buddhist it creates controversy in my Jewish, Christian or Muslim family’
When I’m the Buddha, following the way of the Buddha, I’m accepting of you and your ideas, your beliefs, your path or journey, and where you are on that path, and don’t feel the need to ‘set you straight’ by joining me in my path.
The way of the Buddha is ‘live and let live,’ but ‘be awake,’ pay attention to what’s going on around you and what’s going on deep inside of you. Live a thoughtful, compassionate life.
When I was in graduate school, the first time, at age 25, I felt a kinship with Buddhism in part because I was at a time in my life when I had given up on the religion of my childhood, told by my clergyman that either I accepted the literal truth of the Apostle’s Creed or I was not a real Christian. In a sense, then, I felt like a religious orphan.
In Buddhism, and other Eastern Religions, I discovered an alternative way of being religious, or of satisfying my need for an inner spirituality that had nothing whatsoever to do with institutionalized religion…as I understood it then.
I found it in Buddhist teachings, and I understood it to be expressed in the legend about the Buddha; I found it in the various mythologies; I especially discovered it in the poets.
A prime example of that discovery was the following poem which I first heard recited by the poet, Edward Estlin Cummings. Note how this poem balances the right and left hemispheres:
(written here as he published it)
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel of it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us,o life!the sin of Death
This is a perfect expression of the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In the left hemisphere we are afraid of death; in the right hemisphere we not only accept it, but affirm it.
“For when instead of stopping to think (left brain) you begin to feel of it (right brain) dying’s miraculous…why? Because dying is perfectly natural…putting it mildly, lively, but death is strictly scientific and artificial and evil and legal (left brain.)
Buddhism and other Eastern religions balances right-and-left brain. The Buddha’s way is a balanced way.’
We’ll close with another poem – this from Walt Whitman, I Hear it was Charged Against Me
I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the
destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these
States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large
that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.